Helen Shaver is kind of a big deal. This year alone she has directed episodes of Westworld, Snowpiercer, and Lovecraft Country. She is a veteran of prestige TV and directed a made-for-TV movie in 1999 that won an Emmy. Her new film Happy Place, streaming as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival, is her first feature film.
I was able to sit down with her on Zoom to speak about Happy Place, what it’s like working with Canadian legends, and about the universality of the experience of trauma and mental health issues.
Spoiler alert: she was a delight to talk to.
Note: This interview definitely contains spoilers about the film Happy Place, and has also been slightly edited for clarity.
Matthew: Congratulations on what is turning out to be a stellar year for you.
Helen Shaver: We’re having a busy year. I know this Sunday, this Sunday, HBO and crave will screen Episode 106: “Meet me in Daegu“, which is my episode of “Lovecraft Country” which I’m really excited for people to see. Yeah, and of course, my pride and joy, “Happy Place”.
Matthew: And also Snowpiercer this year and Westworld this year
Helen: My Vikings episode, which I actually shot nearly two years ago, we’ll be on in a few months in its last season. Yeah, it’s been really good.
Matthew: seems like you were an actor primarily and now you’re a director primarily but still performing right?
Helen: You know, I haven’t. Well, we all perform! But no, I haven’t acted in front of the camera for a few years. So I think the last thing I did was Down River.
I nearly died in 2001, and at that point, I was directing. Summer’s End had already won the Emmy and so on and so forth. And I was still acting a lot. And as I came back and I just went through what my priorities were and where I felt my creative input would resonate most in the world. And what I really wanted to explore at that point was directing, so I really put acting on the back burner. But you know, the right thing came along, I get out there and show my soul through the imaginary circumstances and through the voice piece of a great character, I do the direction of a great director. I do that.
Matthew: And would you say you are an actor’s director? Does your acting experience inform your directing style?
Helen: Yes, yes, certainly. The fact is I don’t have to pretend to like actors I don’t have to pretend to know how the process works. Well, it’s individual to each artist, but there are principles there’s language, and I remember when I was acting that there were certain directors that I would think what? They don’t hear me, they don’t see me, they don’t feel me, and there are some adjectives being attached to actors.
I didn’t know until my first concept meeting as a director when I was talking about a character an actor in the piece and I said, “well, he would need to do…” and somebody in the room said, “well, he’s just a fucking actor.” And the adjective was “just” and to attach the adjective of “just” to acting is to truly show me that you don’t understand acting.
So yes, I’m an actor’s director, I love to make the environment safe enough for an actor to make a mistake to fall on their face, to let them know that they’re safe, that I will pick them up, that I will help them through, because really for greatness, you have to be willing to fall down, you know? You have to be able to let it go and take the ride and to be present in yourself and to speak your specific truth.
In Happy Place each of my actors –they’re all great actors, seven great actors– brought a willingness to the project, a respect for the material, and an informed and mature way of approaching each character, but even more than that a willingness to share their specific truths and what they knew in this piece. That is I think what makes each –See I get all choked up I’m so French Canadian– each of those performances so remarkable.
Matthew: In preparation for speaking to you I just finished watching it for the second time, and the everyone in it is great. You get to work with two Canadian legends in Mary Walsh and Sheila McCarthy. How did you connect with them? Do they just audition or were you like “They’re the one”?
Helen: Both of them I had in my mind for sure. I’ve worked a lot with Mackenzie Donaldson, Sheila’s daughter on Orphan Black and Snowpiercer and so on. I had told her that I thought Sheila would be so amazing for this role, and she sent me a note saying “I would love to read the script.”
I sent her the script. She said “I would love to do this, would you like to see what I would do with this character?” and she sent me a video of one of the speeches and it was just so spot on that it was undeniable, but she was somebody I wanted before. Likewise, Mary was from the beginning. I visualized Mary Walsh in Mildred’s role for sure.
Both of those performances are so complex and real and vulnerable and lacking in vanity both as women and as actors, like not going “oh, watch me do this big emotional thing.” Certain actors want to show you that they can do this and they can do that. Mary and Sheila rise so above that, and I think they each deliver remarkable performances.
Matthew: Yeah, I would say my experience of Mary Walsh is obviously more in the comedic realm. So it was really interesting to me to see her in such a dramatic, vulnerable and also angry role.
Helen: Very raw, right?
Matthew: Very raw, and very, very real.
Helen: And with so much trust. This is the thing in relationships with human beings, nevermind filmmaking or creating art, but just in relationships with human beings isn’t the greatest gift any human being can give you is their trust? So, take that and magnify that with the pressure cooker of a set and the vulnerability of these kinds of emotions, and to be given the trust by these actors, and every actor that I work with, who is willing to say “yes.”
But that’s also because I trust them it’s like falling in love. It’s such a mutual thing and then you just take care never to betray that trust and then you have really incredible wealth to work with, you know? And yes I am an actor’s director, and one of the reasons I really wanted to do this piece –there are so many reasons I wanted to do this piece and I knew I would do this piece and I’m so proud that we did it– but one of the reasons oddly enough is that doing Vikings, and Snowpiercer, and Westworld, and so on, you’re working with –and I love– the big Canvas, right? I love the toys and all that, but I never get distracted by the bigness because I know that in the middle of that vast tapestry, that incredible Canvas, what needs to anchor the middle of it is the human being and the human response, true response to the violence, the pain, the emotional turmoil, the love, the joy, the whatever it is that that the moment is about.
I really wanted to see if I could strip away all the technical bigness and bring it right down to the basics of a single camera.
Jackson Parrell, our cinematographer, not only lit it beautifully, but he operated the camera himself –he and I worked together On Anne with an E and I think he’s a gifted cinematographer but also just such a fine human being, and a really good storyteller too– so that he could be present, you know and intimate in these moments with these women.
I remember sitting down with PJ Robertson, a great cinematographer that I’ve worked with, on Vikings while he was in town doing Altered Carbon. We had dinner and I said, “Oh, god, PJ, can I do a film? Can I do a film in 21 days? Putting on 11 hour days with one location and a single camera? Can I do that?” And he said, “Yeah, just strip it down Helen, and just go for it. Tell your story” and if you’re the judge of it, in this moment, you are. I guess it worked.
Matthew: I would say very much so! How did you connect with the material? Like originally? Did you see the play? Or did someone bring it to your attention?
Helen: I didn’t see the play and I had not seen Crash and I had never met Pamela [Sinha], but I had worked with [Sienna Films] and I really admire these women in terms of the nature of the material that they are drawn towards, and that they against all odds managed to produce, and produce very well.
About four and a half years ago Jennifer Kawaja, my agent, and I were having a conversation and she was asking me what it is I wanted to do. We were talking about features and I said, “you know, the genre doesn’t matter to me. It’s the quality of the writing and the story underneath the story”. Because that’s the story that I’m interested in that story that happens inside all of us that place where truth is universal. And the truth of the moment.
So we got up to leave and Jennifer opened the door and said “Helen, I’ve got this early, early draft, it’s an adaptation from a play that Pamela Sinha wrote in and this is their first screenplay. I don’t know if it’s going to affect you, but have a read of it.”
So I read it that afternoon. I was in Toronto for the [Canadian Screen Awards], and I was going to be leaving the next day. I read it and I called her back and I said: “Jennifer, I want to do this film.” And she said, “Well, let me introduce you to Pamela.”
When I met Pamela –who is a remarkable human being– and the inciting incidents of this film are based on her true life experience when she was 19.
Matthew: In many ways. Samira’s story is her story from what I understand.
Helen: That’s right. Exactly. When I met Pamela, I was so moved. I really truly understood that the girl’s story needed to be told and that Pamela, as Wordsworth says, “poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity” and enough years had gone by for her to write the plays and now enough time had gone by to say “Okay, this is great, but let’s bring Samira forward.”
I will never make a rape exploitation film. We’re not going to exploit the rape, but we must see part of it because Pamela would speak about the ongoing post-traumatic stress –which never goes away. This is not something that’s going to magically go away– as like a buzz, a drone that was always present and sometimes roared forward and took over her whole consciousness. She told me that when she was in a black what she would see was just the centre of the frame, hyper-focused on minutiae and almost like a photograph that had been burnt out around the edges and overexposed in the middle. I thought about that a lot. We talked about it a lot.
In translating it from a play, or from a life experience into a film, I needed to find a way to tell the story about this, about what’s constantly going on. I reached the conclusion that I wanted the audience to understand, if not consciously, at least on a gut level that no matter where that girl was, she was always in that room.
Matthew: Yeah, I really enjoyed how it seemed with her dreams or memories of the events you could never quite tell which one was which until the end of the next scene, basically, that it was always present.
Helen: Yeah, good!
Matthew: How did you approach that with Clark [Backo]?
Helen: Oh man Clark, what a talent. What an incredible talent and what a willing partner in the creation of this film. We auditioned a lot of young women, and then we found Clark, and offered her the role, and then when she and I met… it’s so multifaceted. It begins just as it began with Pamela and I, with that recognition with that my willingness to be present and her willingness to be present, and a choice to trust each other.
And there were so much from Clark’s own life experience that she brought to the piece, which is her story to tell, but I just did what I do, which is make it safe and tell the truth, you know? That I will always tell you the truth, and I see you.
There was a lot of consciousness about what order we shot scenes in. See, there are things that people who’ve never acted don’t understand. Like for example, I don’t have to feel sad right now to make myself start to cry, I can be feeling perfectly fine but as soon as I put myself in that state, and I start to cry, my body doesn’t know the difference. My body doesn’t know I’m acting, right? Whether I’m laughing or getting angry, whatever, my body doesn’t know the difference.
So I was really conscious, just In terms of as a human being, and as a director. When, for example, the scene where she’s in the shower, and then completely hyperventilating and in that wild anxiety attack that she has –which, again, these were choices that were really consciously made in terms of what I wanted to achieve– in those scenes because the audience never is with her at the moment right before she takes those pills, so they don’t know what got her to lay down on the floor and line up those pills. They understand the story at some point, but for them to viscerally understand the emotional pain that someone is in at that point, I felt we needed to see it.
So I looked at that first part leading up to her sitting in the window, that incredible anxiety attack as the first chapter to bring the audience up to speed that okay, this is a broken woman in pain, doesn’t know what to do, has tried, doesn’t want to try anymore and has to try you know, just that knot of distraught really. So going back to how I worked with her; I pushed, I invited, I cared for, and I recognised that when she walked away from that scene, you don’t leave it. It’s not like “ok, done, good, what’s next?” You are in that state, and there was a great deal of consciousness about that.
I have five sisters and of course a mother and a father but I grew up in a home with seven women, my mother and sisters and myself, and a couple of days before we started shooting with when I was in the house and I had all the women there and I went “Oh my goodness, I’ve managed to manifest my family! Six sisters and a mother!”
Matthew: Film I find is always at its best and most powerful when you can relate to it, and I think there’s probably at least one character in this film that literally everyone can relate to, man or woman.
Helen: Exactly. I showed it to a writer friend of mine, a man who’s my age and he wrote back to me after he screened it and he told me about his mother and the depression that she had spent her life in and how that affected the relationship. When I asked him, the moment that really triggered him completely it was the little boy outside the window watching the mother go up the stairs.
So for everyone, there is a different doorway. I think it’s one of the brilliant things in Pamela’s play and the screenplay is that if you look at it, each woman is a facet. Samira is in the centre, and by looking at the totality of these women, we really do see the length and breadth of depression and suicide and post-traumatic stress and we don’t get to get off easy and say “Oh, yeah, well if you got raped then you might want to kill yourself.” No! Joyce tells us in that beautiful scene at the end where she says “nothing happened to me.” Because that’s also true. Right?
So in making the film, collectively what [Sienna Films] and Pamela and I wanted to achieve was just the first step that before you can recover you have to uncover. You have to come to a place where moment to moment you make a choice.
So Samira hands the glass back we have literally seen “Okay, I make a choice at this moment to live.”
Matthew: Right after the scene where the three of them admit that they’re sad and maybe that’s okay because honestly, that’s the big triggering scene for me.
Helen: And it’s in that collective right? And again, going back to Pamela’s writing, which I think is beautiful on so many levels, in that moment when the three of them say sad, sad, sad, we have Chekhov’s three sisters really standing there. Why do you wear black? You know, I’m in mourning for my life.
Matthew: one thing I really like –I mean, I’m predisposed, apparently, to like films that are based on plays– but one thing that I really liked about this is that it does really feel like Pamela was sort of working through her trauma through her art, like through the writing in the play a little bit. Is that something that you feel was universal on set? Were you still working through like Pamela’s trauma was there something in there that everyone brought to it?
Helen: Everyone brought, their own [trauma] to their own, and I’m sure if you were to speak to Pamela the characters that she visualized are recognized, and served and, and enhanced by each woman’s specificness. We didn’t improvise, we didn’t do any of that, because we really honoured the script but the truth is each person brings and raises it up with their own experience.
I also think that that –and again, you’d have to speak to Pamela– but by the time she wrote the play, she was she had already written Crash, which is a one-woman show about the girl and then she wanted to do the ensemble of this place where she began to learn to walk beside her trauma because really we all in our lives have at least one –and many of us many– frozen moments. Maybe not as dramatic as Samira’s, or as extreme, but we have these frozen moments in our past that we spend lots of our life moving away from trying to forget or try to remember and figure out, and my experience in my own life is that it is only when you can go to that moment and invite it into your present where you honour it and witness it and hold it and then you are unlocked. It is no longer frozen. It is part of you, right.
We’re funny human beings because I remember a few years ago when I started working with my pilates teacher and I would say “Well, my body!” and she goes “you know, your body is you right?” We think we separate parts of ourselves, but we are all of ourselves. We’re all of our bodies, right?
Matthew: Yeah. I think the movie is a really nice, well-executed story of what it must feel like to have something that you want to exercise from your experience and learning to just be with it a little bit. That’s how I felt about Samira’s story. I hope that lots of people get to see it. Speaking of which I just wanted to ask, with the pandemic, this obviously was intended for theatres. Is it still headed to theatres?
Helen: What theatres you know? I was really in mourning about that for a while because I just completely selfishly I wanted to sit in the audience of strangers and feel what they felt. I wanted to see their faces afterwards, I wanted to embrace them, you know? I can’t even embrace my neighbour at the moment! It’s, it’s crazy. So I was pretty gutted when I realized that all the festivals were going to be virtual.
Then once I decided not to suffer too much, but rather accept reality and the paradigm shift that we’re in the midst of, because suffering definitely lies in the resistance, I realized that we made this movie because the girl’s story needed to be told. The girl needed to be heard, and perhaps more people will be able to hear this story and sit with themselves and understand that they are not alone. Whether their trauma is large or small, it is their trauma and I think maybe more people will see it this way. That’s what I’m going with these days, you know? Because really if it was playing at Vancouver Film Festival actually, it would only be people in Vancouver that could see it and how many people would fit into the theatre and so we all give up that a little bit of community but hopefully we find community in those around us and people we watch it with.
Matthew: Well, it’s streaming at Vancouver Film Festival from the 24th of September all the way to the 7th of October, and I think it’s playing Calgary as well, right?
Helen: It’s also at Cinefest in Ontario, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, St. John’s Women’s Film Festival and our website is HappyPlaceTheFilm.com
I had a great time speaking with Helen, and we actually spoke for a few minutes more after this about Tremors 2 and The Land Before Time. The video of this Zoom call will be a Patron Exclusive in the next few days if you’d like to hear that, too.